Krugman: The Economist opposed attempts to improve public sanitation in the 19th century

Monday I wrote $#*! My Texas AG Says: “It is almost the height of insanity of bureaucracy to have the EPA regulating something that is emitted by all living things.” I pointed out this view suggests doing nothing about sewage, too.

Today NYT columnist and Nobel-prize-winning economist Pual Krugman links to my piece and points out that in fact:

hey, there was a time when conservatives did, in fact, argue for doing nothing about effluent of any kind. In the years leading up to the Great Stink of 1858, which finally got the British to build a London sewer system, The Economist editorialized against any such foolish notion (pdf):

suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions””they cannot be got rid of.

Or, to put it (almost) in the modern vernacular, stuff happens.

And given the way we’re heading “” with politicians arguing that the federal government has no right to ban child labor “” don’t be surprised to see the anti-sewer movement making a comeback, and to see elected representatives, even if they know better, holding their noses and going along.

The full 1848 quote from The Economist is worth a look to see how far we haven’t come:

Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions””they cannot be got rid of;  and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.

Loosely translated, don’t even think of addressing pollution until we’re 100% certain it’s harmed all those evil do-gooders irreversibly.  To modify the old saying, the less things change the more they remain the same.

And let’s not forget, “After firefighters watched home burn, Obion County expands subscription-only fire service to more towns” and “Humane Society condemns subscription-only firefighters for standing by and letting animals die in fire.”

22 Responses to Krugman: The Economist opposed attempts to improve public sanitation in the 19th century

  1. Dickensian American says:

    If there is a divine force watching us from someplace out there in the universe, he or she has got to be wiping a tear of laughter from his her cosmic eye. Because you can’t make this stuff up folks.

  2. paulm says:

    Carbon Taxes are best way to Cut Emissions, says leading Economist

    Leading climate economist William Nordhaus, who is a Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University, states that carbon taxes are the best way to achieve significant reductions in greenhouse emissions.

    William Nordhaus says it is necessary to raise the price of carbon to implement carbon policies so that they will have an impact on everyday human decisions, and on decision makers at every level in every nation and sector.

  3. Seth Masia says:

    Passage should read

    Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions—they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.

    [JR: Spoo!]

  4. Flin says:

    When someone has the opinion that regulations regarding child labor should be a matter of state legislation instead of federal regulations, this doesnt make him a bad person. he just has a legal opinion about legislation. He didnt say that he is for child labor.

  5. James says:

    Re #4: Doesn’t such a person (unfortunately not hypothetical) see federal regulation as a greater evil than child labour? That tells you a great deal about their values. In the same way, anyone who understands the seriousness of the climate catastrophe we’re facing views arguments over the role of federal government to be rather trivial in comparison.

    P.S And let’s not forget how the whole states’ rights issue was used to oppose civil rights legislation. I wouldn’t trust some of your states to legislate appropriately on a whole range of issues, but then I am a condescendingly prejudiced Brit.

  6. Leif says:

    In fact history has shown, that left to their own devices, corporations will quickly exploit Child Labor to improve profits. Corporations have a clear record of environmental and humanitarian abuse, stretching back hundreds of years. Thru out the world. To this day, Wall Street and Corporate America actively work to prevent “Humanity” from having a seat at the table. (I think Humanity should be “top dog” but I could accept a round table to get things moving quickly.) It is appalling that they have gotten this far on the big kohunna.

    Thinking about it, I wouldn’t even give Corporations or Big Money a seat, but that is another story.

    I think it is “face time” with these duds. It will make great press!

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Economist shows that the Right never changes, and cannot change. The Right’s attitudes are partly hereditary, passed on down the generations through prejudice and antipathy. They are inculcated in the elite’s educational institutions. I know this as I attended one, and was a little bemused, for a time, by just how strong and well-nigh universal were expressions of strong class hatred, racism, xenophobia and misogyny. I was a bit of a laugh, one of the school ‘Commos’, which got me bullied, but only a little. I was generally considered beneath contempt. Although, on this level, these attitudes are a cultural phenomenon, revealing a ruling class (and their subaltern collaborators) driven by fear and hatred of, and contempt for, the ‘great unwashed’, what they really illuminate is the psychology of parasitism.
    Basically all ruling elites, even well entrenched ones like those of the West, hold the rabble in absolute contempt. It is a law of nature, as they see it, for some to have everything while others starve. What the masters can never possess, otherwise they would rebel, as many have over the ages, and go over to the enemy, is human empathy and compassion. Of course it is tactically useful at times, particularly in these days of sham elections when the patsies need to be conned every few years, to be able to feign compassion and humanity. David Cameron is a current master of this art, as the lower ranks in the UK are learning to their cost.
    The Economist has even come out against energy efficiency as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It resurrected ‘Jevons Law’, as if the world was still trapped in the 19th century, and no doubt, because they are an organ rather transparently impressed with their own ineffable cleverness, thought it a jolly wheeze and a kick in the face for the ‘green extremists’. I find the Economist useful, as a guide by negative example. I rather enjoy reading it and its market fundamentalist blather, but only in small doses.

  8. From Peru says:

    This conservative behaviour is unbelievable!

    Banning child labor is uncostitutional?!!?

    So sure also the 8-hour labor day and minimum wages are also a dangerous Communist practices, according the the anti-science, anti-people crowd!

    If someones ever consider to trow sewage into water supplies, he should be told:

    “If you pollute our water, when you get typhoid fever or cholera you will be banned from taking antibiotics!”

    These backwards behaviours that really make then Enemies of the People… to use a language from the French Revolution

    (note, I am against death penalty so do not accuse me of wanting to chop off heads as was done in the French Revolution, I am only using a term that I think best describe this people)

  9. Gosh. One hundred and fifty years later, we are discussing the same things. Wish we had another 150 years to work it out.

  10. Seth Masia says:

    Amory Lovins skewered the Jevons Law beautifully in the letters column of The New Yorker this week, as follows:

    David Owen argues that energy efficiency can lead to greater energy use, but actual “take-backs” of energy savings are usually between zero and a few per cent, rarely ten to thirty per cent, and never more than a hundred per cent (“The Efficiency Dilemma,” December 20th & 27th). Rebound effects are small in energy-using devices for three reasons: no matter how efficient your house or washing machine becomes, you won’t heat your house to sauna temperatures, or rewash clean clothes; you can’t find an efficient appliance’s savings in your un-itemized electric bill; and most devices have modest energy costs, so even big savings look unimportant. Respending a saved energy dollar does indirectly use energy, but, from 1986 to 2007, only six to nine cents’ worth on average, and no respent dollar can buy more energy than the hundred-per-cent energy in that original dollar saved. Owen assumes that respending inevitably buys energy-intensive activities, but mindful respending could instead buy even more efficiency. Owen also confuses rebound with wealth effects. Overwhelmingly, it is increased wealth, not past energy savings, that enables people to buy cheap, inefficient air-conditioners. Efficiency makes comfort less expensive, but it hardly affects the purchase of that air-conditioner, because future energy savings are generally poorly understood, diluted by capital costs, and heavily discounted. Owen’s complaint is fundamentally about economic growth, yet he doesn’t criticize other growth promoters, such as education or public health. In 2009, America used half the energy it would have used at 1975 intensity (energy per dollar of G.D.P.), and efficiency probably boosted G.D.P. by one to two per cent—which Owen considers a cost, not a benefit. Energy savings have also offset eighty-one per cent of the energy consequences of U.S. economic growth since 1975, and effectively “fuel” half of today’s G.D.P. In eleven of the past thirty-four years, U.S. energy use fell; in nine of those eleven, savings grew faster than G.D.P. Paying attention to energy efficiency could achieve this every year—as we did with oil from 1977 to 1985, when G.D.P. rose twenty-seven per cent while oil use fell seventeen per cent.

    Amory B. Lovins

    Chairman and Chief Scientist

    Rocky Mountain Institute

    Snowmass, Colo.

    Read more

  11. michael says:

    I recently downloaded a lecture by a professor who’s name escapes me, who is an expert on extinction events.

    He believes that in times past large increases in CO2 has occurred because of increased periods of volcanic activity. The world warmed until the ice caps melted, which caused a massive change in ocean currents. This caused ocean and sea inversions, which caused even further ocean warming to the point of huge ocean life die off and extinctions. Currently 25% of humans get most of their protein from the worlds oceans.

    This is bad enough, but it also caused the growth of algae that creates Hydrogen Sulphide in the oceans. Eventually the oceans became saturated with Hydrogen Sulphide, and was released in gas form, causing clouds of hydrogen sulphide to fall on land masses, causing further land die offs and extinctions. Huge quantities of micro-fossils of this poison producing algae have been found in rocks dated from these periods of mass extinctions. I believe he said there has been about ten of these events.

    Of course, this is supposition, or theory. But the it seems that the worst case scenario for humans isn’t just a need for high grade sun-block and a move to cooler climates, but the possibility of the complete destruction of modern society, possibly as bad as the destruction of the species.

    I guess I don’t need to point out that Texas has ocean front property.

  12. Nell says:

    Feces is plant food too. Right?

  13. Sam Vilain says:

    The timeline of the construction of the London sewer system and the scientific discovery that the plague of the time (I forget what it was) was water-borne and not by the “miasma” or smell is also fascinating and well covered in the program, Seven Wonders of the Industrial World: The Sewer King.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    michael#11, there was a notorious ‘murder’ in Sydney on 1st January 1963, when the bodies of Dr Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler were discovered near the Lane Cove River. After years of often lurid speculation, a documentary in 2006 made a pretty convincing case that they were poisoned by hydrogen sulphide gas emitted from the then heavily polluted river. Mass death by hydrogen sulphide is one of those ‘outrider’ possibilities for the coming apocalypse, although anoxic dead-zones are, reportedly, increasing rapidly, which might shorten the odds on this specific fate. There is such a smorgasbord to choose from, all, every single one of them, furiously denied by the Right. You’d almost think that they actually want it to happen.

  15. davidgswanger says:

    Michael @11: I think the scientist you refer to is probably Peter Ward, who makes this argument in a fine (if chilling) book called The Flooded Earth. I recommend it highly, but it is quite the downer; the author himself (like a few other scientists I’ve heard lately) admits to be being scared.

  16. Jeffrey Davis says:

    That’s a graph of energy consumption in the USA. Look at what the price increases of the middle 70s did to the consumption of oil and natural gas.

    Energy use is elastic.

  17. Theodore says:

    I do not believe in social progress. It is a myth. The only real progress is genetic. We must evolve to better things or resign ourselves to be eternally pulled back to our beginnings.

  18. BBHY says:

    ROFLMAO! You can’t make this stuff up! Whatever crazy winger story you can possibly imagine, the wingers are already much, much deeper into crazyland!

  19. Dickensian American says:

    @12 Sam Vilain:

    I think you’re speaking of the cholera outbreak in London.

  20. _Flin_ says:

    @James #5: No, such a person doesn’t see federal legislation as a greater evil than child labor.
    If the European Union forbids the wearing of guns in the USA, everyone will say “This is ridiculous, the EU has no right to make laws for the US.”. The issue of guns is irrelevant here.
    Same goes for child labor and federal legislation. The opinion that child labor has to be regulated on state level, because it is not of federal concern (due to labor not being an interstate commercial transaction), has nothing at all to do with child labor and to what extent it has to be forbidden.

    The Senator said that he is not opposed to laws regulating child labor. To construct an allegation about him seeing federal regulation as a greater evil than child labor seems way over the top to me.

  21. fj3 says:

    Yeah, Jevons Law is totally naive and Joe Romm posted a reference about a year ago to what seems to be extreme mathematical formulism debunking it.

    Lovins’ explanation is a lot simpler, accessible, and practical.

    “Efficiency lives–the rebound effect not so much. ” via @climateprogress

    And, the concept of going net-zero — sort of essentially extremely efficient — promotes a disruptive kind of “Eden Effect” where Adam and Eve had a very low cost-of-living and a very high quality-of-life and something perhaps, that would be near achievable and not bad.

  22. Chris Winter says:


    I agree with David G. Swanger: the professor you mention is probably Peter D. Ward, of the University of Washington. His two latest books, Under a Green Sky and The Flooded Earth, go into great detail about the causes of these past extinctions and their implications for us today.